This post was originally delivered as part of a High Holidays sermon at Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation in 2008; this year’s High Holidays topics are available here. This post previously appeared in 2014 on the Grief Beyond Belief blog and is re-posted from that site with permission.
A truth of the human condition: just when life seems too much for us, that’s when we’re most human. I’ll tell you a secret of the rabbinic trade: It’s no secret to create meaningful wedding ceremonies or funerals – you talk about the people, which is why everyone is really there, and you tell the truth. “This is a tragedy;” or “we are here today to celebrate new love and a beautiful future.” When the rabbi or priest goes off into traditional pieties, hopes and prayers of how we wish the universe ran, that’s when they lose people. When you stick to reality, you can’t miss saying something relevant to the way people live every day, not just on holidays.
Just when life seems too much for us, that’s when we’re most human. This summer, I officiated a babynaming in the home of a dying woman – the woman was the new baby’s grandmother. The parents had moved the ceremony to her home in hopes that she could come downstairs for just a few minutes, but that morning she was just too weak and exhausted. I visited with her briefly before the ceremony, and then we marked the occasion downstairs with the rest of the family. I said then that present at that moment was the entire gamut of human emotion: excitement at new life, pain at the suffering of someone you love, remembering grandparents and great-grandparents after whom the baby and her older sister had been named. After the ceremony was over, the parents and the baby and her sister and I went upstairs to the dying grandmother’s bedroom, and we created a brief re-enactment of the naming for her. It was not easy for anyone, and there were more tears than at any other babynaming I’ve done. The grandmother died within a few days of the ceremony, only 60 years old. I visited that very same home for the shiva [post-funeral reception] exactly a week after the babynaming, standing almost exactly where I stood for the naming ceremony, and I felt how wonderful it was that we were able to do what we did the week before – we had faced reality with caring and with courage, and just when life seemed too much for us, that’s when we were most human.
People ask me how I handle painful situations like funerals. I don’t look forward to them, but they are moments of peak experience, moments when we are truly human in our rawest and most honest form. That gamut of human emotions is there at any moment of the human condition – somewhere in the world, people are suffering unjustly and celebrating new life and falling in love and mourning a loss right now, and our sympathies and excitement could connect with any of them, and with all of them. It is not a beautiful world that providence designed for our benefit, nor is ours an unremittingly painful existence from which death is the only release – the human condition is flawed, and beautiful, and challenging, and it is our reality whether we like it or not. Far better to face that reality, and then get busy living while the living’s here.